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Quake-spawned tidal waves leave 95 dead in Nicaragua

By OSWALDO BONILLA

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Rescue workers searched for survivors Wednesday after an underwater earthquake sent 50-foot tidal waves slamming into dozens of villages along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, killing at least 95 people, injuring dozens and leaving thousands homeless.

At least 95 people were killed, 155 injured and 50 were missing, said Nicaraguan Red Cross spokesman Lazaro Garcia and military spokesman Lt. Ricardo Wheeler.

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The two spokesmen said 3,166 people had been displaced and 815 houses were destroyed from the tidal waves.

Nicaraguan authorities said as many as 50 communities along 120 miles of Pacific coastline were inundated Tuesday night by the tidal waves, which reportedly penetrated more than 1 mile inland and left behind a trail of death, destruction and homelessness.

President Violeta Chamorro, who visited the hardest-hit areas Wednesday, issued an urgent emotional appeal for the United States to release economic aid to help the victims of the disaster. Washington has frozen $116 million in assistance to Nicaragua because of allegations of widespread corruption and claims the leftist Sandinistas still control the government.

'I know they are going to help us,' Chamorro said in an emotional appeal on national television. 'I know the United States is going to send (the economic aid) promised.'

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State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said President Bush sent a message of sympathy to Chamorro Wednesday. He said the Bush administration extended an offer of humanitarian aid to Nicaragua and that the U.S. Embassy in Managua had released $25,000 from a discretionary relief fund to be used for 'things like food, water and tenting material.'

In Washington, Boucher said the administration also would send a disaster assistance team from the U.S. Agency for International Development to assess the situation. He said the Defense Department was considering how it could help provide relief supplies.

The U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., reported that a quake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck at 7:16 p.m. Tuesday Nicaraguan time in the Pacific, 75 miles west-southwest of Managua -- spawning tidal waves in an area of frequent earthquake activity.

Nicaragua's seismic agency put the quake at 7.2 on the Richter scale. The first temblor was followed by at least two strong aftershocks.

Nicaraguan authorities said tidal waves slammed ashore along some 120 miles of Pacific coastline.

Authorities said most people died in the largest communities along the coast. Those include Masachapa, Pochomil, San Juan del Sur, Poneloya, Corinto, Las Penitas, Salinas Grandes and Casares.

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Chamorro visited Masachapa Wednesday after appealing for Washington to deliver on $116 million in promised economic aid. The aid was frozen in May after several U.S. officials complained about the strong influence of the Marxist Sandinistas on the government.

The U.S. officials also expressed concern about allegations of corruption in the administration and about the government's failure to ensure that U.S. citizens are returned property that was confiscated during Sandinista rule.

'Our nation needs its friends, those who have made promises to the people,' Chamorro said in her appeal.

Televisions images from the scene of the disaster showed victims, many of them children, being mourned by relatives while the injured were hustled into ambulances amid the rubble of their communities. Survivors told of entire families being swept out to sea in the catastrophe.

'The ocean came over us,' Juan Ignacio Espinoza of Masachapa told Nicaraguan radio. 'The waves carried away two families.'

Another Masachapa resident said he knew of 41 people who were missing after going out on a fishing boat earlier in the day.

'They had been at sea since noon,' said Ramon Lopez. 'They have not come back. I think they are dead.'

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Among the dead were four Germans and a Spaniard who drowned at Casares, a tourist town 45 miles south of the capital, Wheelock said.

Neighboring Costa Rica also reported 50-foot waves on its coastline, but officials said there were no reports of casualties or damage.

A Costa Rican Seismic Observatory spokesman said the waves had threatened several coastal communities some 150 miles northwest of San Jose.

The spokesman said the sparsely populated communities of Playas del Coco and Carrillo y Cuajiniquil -- popular tourist spots -- reported 'extraordinarily big waves.'

However, Costa Rica does not allow people to build homes within 875 yards of the coast -- a rule that may have minimized the waves' toll.

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